Erik Weihenmayer – Determination
“Blindness is just a thing that happened to me. Like all adversities, you’ve got to use them as a catalyst to push you into new directions.”
Mount Everest is the highest point on earth, measuring 29,032 feet. Reaching this summit has long been viewed as the ultimate “bucket list” feat by many thrill-seekers. Historically, about 500 individuals attempt to ascend the mountain each year, with approximately half succeeding. The unfortunate statistic is that over 300 people have died on the journey. The overwhelming number of fatalities occur in the “death zone,” an altitude north of 26,000 feet where the temperatures plummet and oxygen levels reach dangerous levels. This leads to impaired judgment, falls, frostbite, blackouts, and a loss of the will to live.
When you throw in the occasional blizzard, avalanche, and earthquake, climbing Mt. Everest is one of the most treacherous journeys on the planet. Experts insist that it takes years to train for this adventure. To make the climb, individuals apply for a permit at least a year in advance and almost all hire a professional guide. A three-month commitment is required to make the climb.
As of 2021, approximately 3,000 individuals have successfully climbed Mt. Everest and lived to tell about it. Only one of those individuals was blind. His name is Erik Weihenmayer. How, might you ask, can a blind person successfully navigate the most treacherous climb in the world without being able to even see the next step in front of his face? The answer: Erik is one of the most determined individuals the world has ever known.
When Erik was only 15 months old, his parents noticed that his eyes would shake. They took him to see many specialists and Erik was able to get an appointment at the famed Boston Eye Clinic. After the eye exam, the doctor told Mr. and Mrs. Weihenmayer, “I’m sorry to inform you, your son will be blind by his early teens.” The diagnosis was an extremely rare disorder called Juvenile Retinoschisis, a condition in which the layers of the retina at the back of the eye separate over time. The specialists recommended that Erik enroll in special schools for the blind. However, his parents insisted on enrolling him in traditional schools.
Erik loved being outdoors and playing sports. He just wanted to be a kid and held on to every freedom that you and I might take for granted. Despite this desire to live normally, he lost more and more of his sight each year. And, just like the doctors predicted, by age 14 Erik was completely blind. He saw only blackness where he once saw color and images.
“I wasn’t afraid of seeing darkness,” Erik said years later. “Rather it was a fear of being obsolete, of becoming a bystander, just sitting there watching, or rather listening to life go by.”
Make no mistake about it, Erik struggled with the stark reality of blindness. He felt isolated, lost, and depressed. With time, he learned that, for him, as one door closed another door opened. “I felt like I was in a prison, and I didn’t know how to get out of it,” Erik commented. “So I joined the wrestling team.” As a freshman, Erik didn’t win a single match. However, each year he improved and he eventually became a dominant wrestler. During his senior year, Erik served as the team captain and secured 33 pins. He was also selected to represent his home state of Connecticut in the National Junior Freestyle Wrestling Championship.
Erik began to take on new adventures and he received a letter from a group taking blind kids rock climbing. He thought to himself, “That sounds so stupid. Who would take a blind person rock climbing?” But he signed up! Little did he know that this experience would change his life forever. He loved the tactile feel of the rocks. Climbing allowed him to “see with his hands.” Each step was like solving a puzzle. Climbing became a metaphor for Erik’s life.
“I learned that life is just one reach after another into the darkness,” Erik lamented. “I managed to confront my fears and push them to the peripheries.”
One mountain climb led to another, day after day and year after year. Erik eventually moved west to Phoenix, Arizona, where he got a job teaching middle school and coaching wrestling. He built up his skills and experience at the local cliffs and then moved on to tougher mountains in different states. Erik became an expert climber on many different terrains, but a blind climber doesn’t do it alone. He learned to build strong teams. Being a mentally tough individual, Erik was determined to be a contributing member of each team, not merely a “football to be spiked on the summit” as he puts it!
With each summit, a grander ambition began to emerge. Erik set out to climb the “7 Summits,” which consists of climbing the highest summit on each of the seven continents. This includes Denali in North America, Aconcagua in South America, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt. Elbrus in Europe, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, Puncak Jaya in Australia, and of course, the tallest, Mt. Everest in Asia. Erik became the 125th person to accomplish this incredible feat.
When Erik brought up the idea of climbing Mt. Everest, many thought it was dangerous, even crazy. Seasoned veterans wrote articles in magazines denouncing the idea: “I wouldn’t want to take him up there myself. They’ll have to be helping him, watching out for him every step of the way. The risks are too great. It will be the hardest ever guided ascent of Everest.” However, Erik was used to dealing with naysayers his entire life. So, he carefully assembled a team, planned for two years, and trained for an entire year.
In April of 2001, 20 men began the ascent with the sole purpose of getting Erik to the top of the world. However, the ascent right out of basecamp proved to be more difficult than expected. It takes the average climber 4 hours to get through the Kumbu Icefalls — 2,000 vertical feet of icy crevasses. “It’s ice boulders the size of baseballs to skyscrapers all piled on top of each other in this real chaotic way,” Erik described. “When you’re jumping across those boulders, there are thousands of foot drops on both sides and hundreds of crevasses.” On his first trip, it took Erik 13 hours to get through this section. When he arrived at camp that night, Erik was exhausted, green from high-altitude nausea, and his face was bloodied from an errant slip as a friend reached out to help, but missed and bashed his nose with an ice axe.
Many other challenges lay ahead in the next 40 days: -20 degree temperatures, 100-mile-an-hour winds, and snow lightning. At different times, the white-out conditions prevented Erik’s teammates from seeing more than 10 feet. Weather delays halted the team’s progress multiple times. At altitude as extreme as Everest, the human body is slowly wasting away, wounds and sickness take weeks to heal and Erik lost over 20 pounds on the trek. And yet, he and the team forged ahead. On May 25, 2001, Erik reached the summit. Eighteen of his team members made it too, establishing a world record for the greatest number of people from a single team to summit Mt. Everest in a day.
Erik has enough of a sense of humor to know that some people will not understand his desire to climb mountains. “Being a blind mountain climber is like being a Jamaican bobsledder. The words just don’t connect in people’s minds.” Likewise, people continually ask Erik why he climbs if he can’t enjoy the views. His typical response is this: “With that attitude, why do anything if you can’t see. There’s so much to experience out there. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I’m not living.”
It’s easy to see that Erik has been determined to live his life to the fullest. After all, he earned a degree from Boston College, landed a job as a teacher, married the woman of his dreams and is currently raising two children. Never one to take it easy, he discovered kayaking at the age of 40. His latest adventure was a 277-mile trek thru the Grand Canyon on the white waters of the Colorado River, something Erik referred to as “the hardest and scariest thing I have ever done.”
Erik participates in these adventures because he loves them. As he puts it, he is seeking, a “universal human experience.” But, of equal importance to him, is his intent to inspire people with all types of challenges to live a full and productive life without barriers. To this end, he founded a non-profit organization called No Barriers. Erik leaves us with these words, “I think that fear of reaching out into the unknown paralyzes people to the point that they just decide not to reach out at all. For me, all the great things that have ever come to me, have come through reaching out into that unknown.”
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Erik Weihenmayer is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: